Skip to content

Assessing the Damage at Hatra

April 7, 2015
tags: ,

Last month reports swept through the global media that ISIS had used bulldozers to level the ancient city of Hatra. ISIS has already destroyed a number of irreplaceable sculptures from Hatra in the Mosul Museum, lending immediate credibility to reports from Iraqi antiquities officials that ISIS fighters had destroyed Hatra itself as well.

However, no videos or other confirmation surfaced for a month afterwards and there was no way to assess the extent of the damage. The story gradually faded from the media. Given the massive size of Hatra, and its location in the middle of the desert, in a region of no strategic significance, over fifty kilometers from inhabited areas, some grew skeptical that ISIS had mounted a major operation to demolish Hatra.

On Saturday video surfaced on YouTube and other websites which showed ISIS fighters destroying sculptures at Hatra. The voice-overs from several ISIS fighters contained the standard spiel about shirk, idolatry, and Muhammad destroying the idols of the Kaaba. The video was quickly removed, but I took some screenshots that will suffice illustrate the items which have been destroyed while leaving out the majority propaganda elements.

The good news is that the damage to Hatra is not as extensive was was first feared. The bad news is that more irreplaceable and unique Hatrene art has been damaged, threatening to further erase an already under-studied field.

At the beginning of the video there is an aerial shot of the ruins of Hatra which seems to have been shot from a blimp or drone. A graphic then highlights the Great Iwans and the Temple of the Triad with a label which reads “idols and statues.”

036All of the artifacts shown being destroyed in the video are from the Great Iwans. None are seen from the Temple of the Triad.

Plan of the Great Iwan at Hatra. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: City of the Sun God, p. 332-333.

Plan of the Great Iwans at Hatra. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: City of the Sun God, p. 332-333.


Hatra was notable for its large number of life-sized or larger sculptures, especially in its major temples. The largest temple is a collection of massive arched rooms known as the Great Iwans, built in a Parthian style (other temples at the site are built in Hellenistic style, again showing Hatra’s importance as a fusion of East with West).

Two statues situated in an alcove closer to the ground are shown being attacked. First they chip away the reconstructed base of the statues with pickaxes, then smash the statues themselves with a large boulder.

318 404 611 619It is important to note that these statues are not reconstructions, but originals uncovered during excavations at Hatra and partially reconstructed at their bases. Here are the original publication photos from Safar and Mustafa’s Hatra: City of the Sun God.

Statues of worshipers from Hatra. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: City of the Sun God, p. 90-91.

Statues of worshipers from Hatra. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: City of the Sun God, p. 90-91.

Sculptures of Heads

The Great Iwans had a number of human heads fixed on the exterior or built into the stonework. These are likewise not replicas but originals uncovered during excavations and restored to their original positions with the aid of steel bars. They break apart easily when hit by a sledgehammer because they break around the metal bar.

#1 – A heavily eroded head at the entrance to the South Iwan (Iwan No. 12) [3]

106 148 534 538 559 659_2 703#2 – Head above a relief of a snake. Outside the South Iwan (Iwan No. 12) [4]

435 455146_2#3 – Head situated between Iwan No. 4 and Iwan No. 12 [5]

511147 148#4 – Gorgon head situated by the entrance to Iwan No. 4 [6]

This is a rather famous piece, thanks to the Aramaic inscription next to it which identifies it as grgn, or a Gorgon. Yet while Medusa the Gorgon from Greek mythology was female, this face has snake hair but also has leaves for a beard which indicates it is a male.[7]

146It is unclear how much damage the relief sustained, as it was only shown in the video briefly being hit with a sledgehammer. It does appear to have suffered a broken nose and some damage around the eyes.


Photo © Hubert Debbasch


Gorgon head from Iwan No. 4. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: City of the Sun God, p. 119.

#5 – Three heads in the back left corner of the South Iwan (Iwan No. 12). [8]

These three heads are too high off the ground for any ISIS fighters to reach, but one fighter is shown shooting them with an AK-47 type rifle. The damage to the reliefs is unclear, but 7.62mm bullets likely do less damage to stone than sledgehammers and the shooting was done primarily for show.

649These heads were above ground and visible in ancient times. They survived for thousands of years in the open air. British explorer Gertrude Bell photographed them in April 1911 before major excavations took place at Hatra.


Three heads on the interior of the South Iwan. Photo by Gertrude Bell, April 1911. (source)


Modern view of the three heads in the South Iwan. Photo © Hubert Debbasch.

The Eagles

The South Iwan (Iwan No. 12) was lined with statues of eagles. Fragments of the eagles were found during excavations, restored, and placed back on the walls during reconstruction of the site during the 1960’s and 1980’s. A similar eagle from Hatra was destroyed in the Mosul Museum.[9]

Some of the eagles were attacked with pickaxes, while others were shot at with a PKM machine gun, breaking off their wings and heads.

151_2 152 153 228 239These eagles do not appear in Gertrude Bell’s 1911 photographs of the South Iwan, nor were most of them published in Safar and Mustafa.

View of the South Iwan (Iwan No. 12) showing reconstructed eagles lining the sides. Photo © Hubert Debbasch.

View of the South Iwan (Iwan No. 12) showing reconstructed eagles lining the sides. Photo © Hubert Debbasch.


Based on this video it appears that the damage to Hatra was much less than originally feared. No major structural damage is depicted and the destroyed sculptures seem to be clustered around Iwans no. 12 and 4.

This would be a good time to note that these videos are highly produced and edited for propaganda purposes. It is entirely possible that other artifacts were destroyed which were not shown in the video. Their destruction may have been omitted for any number of reasons. The shots may have been blurry or from a bad angle. The footage may not have fit the pacing of the final production, which aims to show artifacts being smashed in seconds. If it took minutes to destroy a piece that could be a reason for editing it out.

It should also be noted that firing automatic firearms while standing inside a space enclosed on three sides by heavy stone walls is an incredibly stupid thing to do. Deadly ricochets would also not make for good propaganda filming. An ISIS fighter smashing his foot with a sledgehammer would also be cut out. We have no way of knowing what didn’t make it into the footage, only that the presentation is by its very nature selective.

Back in 2006, Al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi released a propaganda video of himself striding around the desert and firing a capture American M249 machine gun. The next month American troops raided a safe house and captured a laptop with the original unedited footage on its hard drive. American officers gave a press conference where they mocked Zarqawi while presenting the original video, which showed him struggling to aim the heavy weapon and unable to figure out how to clear a routine jam until others are forced to step into the frame to assist him. Their purpose in doing so was to undermine Zarqawi’s propaganda and the cult of personality and fear he built up around himself, and it worked. A similar find, if it exists, could counteract some of the propaganda value of ISIS’ videos of antiquities destruction.

Finally, there is a legitimate concern raised with increasing frequency about whether any publicity at all only helps ISIS achieve their propaganda goals. However, ISIS’ goals are not only to produce internet propaganda for consumption in the West, although that is a part of it. Most of ISIS’ acts of destruction have targeted Shia and Sufi religious sites, as has been extensively documented on this blog. Most of this has received little media coverage outside of the Middle East, yet they do it anyways. This seems to indicate that ISIS is not only acting to create media coverage but to erase the physical evidence of ideas and history whose existence stands in opposition to their own ideology. Documenting what was lost, while being careful not to endanger what survives, is the best way at our disposal to preserve the memory of what is being lost. Once something goes on the internet, it is never gone forever.


[1] Fu’ad Safar and Ali Muhammad Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God [Arabic title al-Ḥaḍr, madīnat al-shams] (Baghdad: Wizarat al-Iʻlām, Mudīrīyat al-Athār al-ʻĀmmah, 1974), 95, pl. 54.

[2] Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, 90-91, pl. 45-46.

[3] Not identified amongst published material.

[4] Michael Sommer, Hatra: Geschichte und Kultur einer Karawanenstadt im römisch-parthischen Mesopotamien (Mainz: Zabern, 2003), 71, fig. 99.

[5] Location identified by comparison to other parts of the video.

[6] Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, 119.

[7] Klaas Dijkstra, “Does Gorgo Harm Us?: About the Interpretation of H106,” 171-183 in Hatra: Politics, Culture and Religion between Parthia and Rome, ed. by Lucinda Dirven (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2013).

[8] Sommer, Hatra: Geschichte und Kultur einer Karawanenstadt im römisch-parthischen Mesopotamien, 71, fig. 98.

[9] The eagle from the Mosul Museum was published in Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, 143, pl. 133. Another eagle was published on p. 144, pl. 134.Article © Christopher Jones 2015.

41 Comments leave one →
  1. Jason Preater permalink
    April 8, 2015 1:04 PM

    You are quite right to keep posting this news. I want to hear what these idiots are up to and I do not think it gives them publicity. Thanks.

  2. Eli Hitler Razcon permalink
    April 15, 2015 4:21 PM

    I don’t think the European nations and America should fight the ISIS. They should allow them to kill each other, if that is their desire. They should only attack them, if they have direct evidence of a large scale terrorist attack.

  3. April 15, 2015 9:20 PM

    This is immisible, how rude this activities seems to be

  4. April 15, 2015 9:35 PM

    Reblogged this on motivasisantri and commented:

  5. mustaphabarki2014 permalink
    April 15, 2015 10:05 PM

    Reblogged this on Engineer Marine Skipper.

  6. April 16, 2015 12:46 AM


  7. April 16, 2015 2:49 AM

    The ISIS group is really bad, they don’t reflect correct ideology and religion. They don’t respect historical sites. In my opinion, somebody should stop them or at least scare them to keep them from doing these things.

  8. April 16, 2015 5:06 AM

    They are really not educated people…they dont know the importance of history especially to them and their culture

    • The Great Worrier permalink
      April 17, 2015 6:21 AM

      The know very well how important history is – that’s why they’re eradicating it, so that no one will question the actions of the present. It’s propaganda at its most effective.

      • April 18, 2015 7:51 PM

        ..if they erased them as they are doing now, how can other race understand them?..its not a propaganda they are doing, its vandalism to the max…

  9. aeipathus permalink
    April 16, 2015 6:17 AM

    Reblogged this on NyxAei.

  10. April 16, 2015 7:06 AM

    try underground there be hide underground

  11. April 16, 2015 12:31 PM

    They aren’t theirs to destroy. Disgusting.

  12. April 16, 2015 6:42 PM

    Thank you for collecting and posting. This sort of behavior is reminiscent of the Roman way of conquering other peoples. When the Romans attacked Britain, they wiped out everything related to the particular culture and did it so effectively that a portion of the Anglo Saxon ethnic group has no real conceptualization of their pre Roman tribal history. While the loss of the artifacts is unfortunate as far as archaeology/anthropology is concerned, it is indescribably tragic for those whose very cultural identity is being attacked.

  13. April 16, 2015 10:14 PM

    Such a Shane.. The destruction of history is deplorable… Relics and sacredness can’t be replaced.. And it gives insight into a time before.. Better shaping the truths of today.. To lose that is a catastrophic tragedy… In any capacity..

  14. April 17, 2015 12:37 AM

    Reblogged this on zafaranius.

  15. themachineheadchronicles permalink
    April 17, 2015 8:33 AM

    Reblogged this on The Machinehead Chronicles.

  16. April 17, 2015 10:59 AM

    Reblogged this on llllyyyyzzzzyyyy and commented:
    嗯 味道很不错

  17. April 17, 2015 1:06 PM

    How can a group of people be so narrowly minded that they believe they have the right to destroy the a cultures physical history.

  18. Jack permalink
    April 17, 2015 1:19 PM

    Reblogged this on Tome and Tomb.

  19. April 17, 2015 5:44 PM

    I don’t understand about ISIS

  20. April 17, 2015 7:35 PM

    While at the same time glad the propaganda effort has exaggerated the damage to this cultural treasure,I am still none the less saddened by ISIS aiming at cultural sights a deer destruction however limited it may be.

  21. April 18, 2015 5:41 AM

    Reblogged this on pradeepparik.

  22. Jeff permalink
    April 18, 2015 4:16 PM

    Unbelievably stupid & a terrible loss to Mankind.

  23. malkit24 permalink
    April 18, 2015 6:32 PM

    Reblogged this on Malkit Bharj.

  24. April 20, 2015 6:10 PM

    Reblogged this on Glamour Philosophy and commented:
    Modern History in the making. I feel it is highly important to know what is happening in our world today. We must take great care to save the cultures of yesterday and today in order to preserve this knowledge for future wisdom. This article and writer does just that, and more. This is a very important read, so please do our world a service by reading and re-blogging it. This is knowledge we must learn, save, and distribute to as many people as possible. Thank you.

  25. April 21, 2015 5:19 AM

    The babel has destroyed Hathra and Nineveh

  26. April 22, 2015 7:24 AM

    The ISIS is destroyer of people we should finish them before they finished many life of people .

  27. May 5, 2015 3:20 PM

    Reblogged this on mznnzm.

  28. May 7, 2015 4:24 PM

    For 11 years I’ve worked for an art museum in the curatorial department. Wanton destruction of these priceless artifacts is the polar opposite of what I do. It sickens my very soul to see it. Creation takes so much effort and time, destruction, just a manner of moments. When we lose these connections to our past, we lose our own identity.

  29. May 15, 2015 12:17 PM

    Reblogged this on Sophie Stephenson.


  1. The Islamic State has used sledgehammers, pick axes and Kalashnikov rifles to smash statues and iconic architecture at Hatra | conflict antiquities
  2. Islamic State B-movie of attack on Nimrud | conflict antiquities
  3. Assessing the Damage at Hatra | VizorVizyon
  4. Livius Nieuwsbrief | Mei | Mainzer Beobachter
  5. Assessing the Damage at Hatra - VizorVizyon
  6. The women behind Sykes-Picot -RocketNews
  7. Verloren Oudheid | Hatra – Een Parthische karavaanstad - Sargasso
  8. The Bondage of History: Daesh/ISIS and the Islamic Past | TRENDS
  9. Early Explorations at Nimrud | Classics Librarians Forum

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: